by Clarence Page

It pains me to congratulate the National Rifle Association, but their help in the Senate's defeat of background checks for gun purchases was an impressive victory -- against common sense.

Although there is widespread disagreement over what constitutes "common sense," it's not unreasonable to assume that an issue like universal background checks -- for which public support runs as high as 90 percent in some polls -- fits the definition.

What's surprising is how quickly the high hopes for background checks collapsed, despite their popularity. Are the senators listening, many wonder? Does American democracy work anymore?

After all, it is widely reasoned, if background checks are such a good idea for immigrants, why not for gun buyers? What better way to put a pinch in the flow of guns to people whose criminal backgrounds or mental health records indicate they should not have firearms?

Adding to the amendment's common-sense credentials were its two exemplary Senate sponsors, conservative Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia and even more conservative Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Both labored through weeks of negotiations to make the measure as palatable as possible to all sides.

Besides, even the NRA supported background checks back in the 1990s, although they worked hard to dilute the reforms at every turn.

But as Sandy Hook and other high-profile massacres in recent years fired up the public in favor of expanded background checks, the NRA turned against them.

Lawmakers pay attention to that. The NRA doesn't just make noise or, backed by the firearms industry, donate barrels full of campaign cash. They also mobilize voters.

In general, those who oppose gun limits are much more likely to get off the couch and vote for -- or against! -- a candidate on that single issue than those who favor such limits.

Unable to come up with good reasons why background checks used to be a good idea but aren't now, the opposition makes stuff up.

There's the argument, for example, that they don't do any good because criminals will still find other ways to buy guns. Sure. But making guns harder for dangerous people to purchase is the whole point.

Then there's the slippery slope argument: background checks will lead -- "inexorably," says Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas -- to federal gun registration, which paranoid opponents see as no more than a pistol shot away from gun confiscation.

In the end, arguments like that, questionable as they may be, were enough to prevent the Manchin-Toomey amendment from winning more than 54 votes. Yes, that's a majority of the 100-member senate, but not enough to reach the 60-vote threshold set by Senate rules.

Still, inside Republican congressional leadership, celebrations are muted. This fight exposed a dangerous divide in the Grand Old Party's ranks that has opened up since the party's presidential election defeat.

On one side are the pragmatic congressional leaders, who favor a radical restructuring of "big government" but also want to widen the party's appeal. That means talking not only about cutting taxes and spending but also how to boost social mobility and fix the country's broken immigration system.

On the other side are the newer tea party generation in both houses of Congress who blame the party's establishment and fundraising elites for the party's problems. Instead of immigration reform, they would rather reach Hispanic voters through the same appeals to religious conservatism and economic liberty that have built the party's base.

The surprising setback for gun safety puts a new cloud of uncertainty on the post-election momentum for immigration reform. We have heard a lot from those who want to bring undocumented workers out of the shadows. We have yet to hear much from non-Hispanic white workers in the GOP base whose idea of immigration reform is increased border security -- and not much else.

No wonder Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and other members of the "Gang of Eight" senators working on an immigration reform bill appear to be taking their sweet time. It has often been said that Democrats have to "fall in love" with their candidates while Republicans "fall in line."

In Congress, at least, they don't seem to be falling in line as quickly as they used to.



Receive our political analysis by email by subscribing here

Gun Vote Reveals New GOP Divide | Politics

© iHaveNet